I find it curious that Orhan Pamuk features as sixth in a list of authors young Indian urban readers intend to read in the near future, after Chetan Bhagat, Jhumpa Lahiri, Amish Tripathi, Charles Dickens and JK Rowling, in that order. I do not know what that aberration means (I see Dickens as one too, but can still be explained by a classic hangover!) and whatever little Indrajit Hazra’s article in August 4th’s Hindustan Times (the survey is conducted by partner C-Fore) publishes is not offering clues either.
The events of the past few months have made me change my views of how I see the world around me. Like the Chandravanshis in Amish’s Shiva trilogy, I now accept that each human lives in his or her alternate reality. The reading preferences of the youth are an alternate reality that we snobbish literature enthusiasts may scoff at, but it is a reality nevertheless. Hazra offers explanations even as he looks down on these reading choices, telling us that the Indian market is going through a phase before it inevitable matures into a more evolved market that presumably will prefer more refined literature. He implies that it is important to be able to consume more thought-provoking literature, for “we are what we read”.
Sure, we are. But then, we are a young nation of wannabes. We are in a constant flux of identity–developing or undeveloped, rural or urban, lower middle class or upper, young or mature, traditional or modern, confident or uncertain, and so on and so forth. Young people have to negotiate complex relationships with themselves, peers, family and society. Young people are fundamentally different in the way they consume, process and engage with information and remarkably astute about the way they see the world around them. Yet, as has been so effectively put forth in the recently published ‘The Ocean in a Drop: Inside-out Youth Leadership’ authored by Ashraf Patel, Meenu Venkateswaran, Kamini Prakash and Arjun Shekhar, the opinions of the youth apparently don’t really matter in the overall scheme of things. We are not interested in understanding young people and their aspirations and worse, we are seriously afraid of placing decision-making in their hands. We prefer to see them as consumers and part of the workforce. We forget that they can be effective change-makers as well. We, the elders, hold the reigns. We expect too little from young people.
Then how can we blame them if their reading preferences are not up to snuff? It is unfair, isn’t it, to provide measured inputs, to box the thoughts of young people into regimented education systems, to prepare for a life whose purpose is to produce and consume, and then to judge them about their lack of interest in art and literature? Or indeed, about their lack of values or disinterest in serving society, accusations that I have heard often enough!
I observe a curious mixture of over-confidence and under-confidence among young people. On one hand, they can conquer the world, being confident of aspects like new technology that fall squarely in their domain. On the other hand, they are constantly searching for identity and trying to grasp the soft skills and the right attitudes that they instinctively know will serve as the icing on the cake in their pursuit for material success. The latter explains why genres like self-improvement, health and spiritual are so popular.
I am, however, heartened to read that 37% respondents read authors other than those six listed in the beginning of the article, showing variety. Entertainment (38%) features as the most significant reason to read, followed my ‘Material that makes me think’ (27%), ‘Easy reading’ and ‘Material I can talk about with friends and colleagues’ come in 3rd and 4th (23% and 12%). The motivations are still the good-old ones and that should tell us that things have not changed as drastically for the worse (ouch, there is judgement there!).
Clearly, given the right exposure and guidance, young people can be encouraged to read a wider selection of fiction and non-fiction. We have diversity in genre and language to offer in this country. New technologies have made reading material more accessible than ever before. Perhaps the most fundamental changes we can make is to allow young people more ‘free’ time to read and engage with cultural and creative aspects of life, to expand their minds, so to speak. Also, we must invest in cultural resources to do so- libraries, accessible and affordable spaces and opportunities for the arts to save us from going under the intellectual poverty line Nilanjana Roy so eloquently blogged about recently. I’m sure experts have many more suggestions, but as a parent of two kids aged 9 and 5, these are the two principles that I am actively trying to follow- allow them time and space, and expose them to culture and creativity. Let’s see how it goes!